NSW Urban Task Force forum on local government reform

28 February 2013 – Chris Johnson and the NSW Urban Task Force are certainly not coy about getting into a stoush to push the development agenda.

It’s their job, after all.

At a breakfast forum on Wednesday morning at Sydney’s Four Seasons Hotel to discuss how to reform local councils, there was no lack of feisty opinion.

For a start there were several members of the United Services Union ready to do a bit of heckling when mayor Ned Mannoun of Liverpool City Council complained his chief executive was soon off to the Industrial Relations Commission over a staff member who is not performing, “because it’s taking 12 months to manage him out”.

Mutterings of “People have rights”, and disparaging repeats of “manage out!” issued forth.


Top of the agenda was the topic of council amalgamation. Was it efficient? Could it actually save the money expected, or was smaller government, closer to the people, a better form of governance? Would amalgamations simply lead to more bureaucracy? Stirring up proceedings was The Daily Telegraph urging bigger councils.

Left to right: John Faker, Ned Mannoun, Sally Betts

Sally Betts, Mayor of Waverley, had 17 years up her sleeve in local government representative, she said.

“We are really supportive of local government reforming but needs to be done in sensible practical manner and bring along the community,” Betts said.

Burwood Mayor John Faker said amalgamations would not resolve much. Threats of councils going broke had continued for the whole of his 13 years in local government “and no-one has gone broke yet,” he said.

The argument about councils in a financial crisis was “nonsense,”  and “the argument for amalgamation is absolute rubbish. It’s a hoodwink to think bigger is better”.

A problem was that state government had shifted costs to local government.

Burwood mayor John Faker said, “I know the residents, people who live in the area, I know people won’t support it”.

Ben Keneally, Mayor of City of Botany Bay, rejected the notion that local government was in crisis. “I don’t think we are in financial crisis. Some might be,” he said.

On amalgamation he thought the “one size solution” for all was wrong.

So was the assumption that amalgamation automatically delivered efficiency gains was wrong. The evidence proved otherwise, he said, referring to recent research.

“Size and efficiency are unrelated.”

The full panel left to right:Ben Keneally, John Faker, Ned Mannoun, Sally Betts, Ross Grove, Vikki Campion

Planning, planning

Chris Johnson turned the focus back on planning, and the notorious delays in getting approvals from some councils. (The proposed changes to the planning system stirred a litany of commentary over several recent  articles in The Fifth Estate.)

Faker said that if planning was the big issue then his municipality had no problem getting development through – there were more cranes in his area than most.

Burwood knew about Local Environment Plans, and about consultation. It worked.  For one new LEP his council doorknocked 3000 homes, he said.

“We were set a housing target.

The state government mandated the Metropolitan Strategy.

We complied.

Ku-ring-gai didn’t and the minister stepped in.

“[At Burwood] We said to the community. We can either have lower level buildings, which will encroach on residential areas or we can have higher level buildings [in the centres]. ”

So smaller councils can make things work and can be more efficient.

Plus, his staff watch “every penny that’s spent”.

“If you want to look at waste and hold ups, you only need to look at Macquarie Street. The hold up is in Macquarie Street.”

Ben Keneally

Meaningful conversations

Botany Bay’s Ben Keneally asked, “What is local government for? Why do we even have it?”

“Fundamentally it’s to give people meaningful local control over the places they live in.

“Place management, it’s an important part of giving people ownership and responsibility for their area.”

If you do that, he said, they would be thoughtful about what is required. It’s when people lose that sense of being in control that they focus on the individual issues and NIMBYISM (not in my back yard).

“Local government gives people a stake in the places in which they live.”

What was relevant to good outcomes was governance. The biggest complaint of local government was where politics interferes with policy, Keneally said.

Issues such as the revolving door of councillors not getting up to speed on council business.

If you say much bigger amalgamated councils were better then why not say the same for the development industry.

“Say we need five or six developers.

It would be much more effective, right?

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis

“That would be going down the Russian path; we would lose innovation and competition, and innovation and competition are fundamentally powerful forces.”

Ben Kenneally said, “the critical point is much less about the time it takes for development to be approved – the difference between 80 days and 100 days related to development that will be there for 100 years”.

“Why not take a bit more time, bring the community along and get their support to get the right result? To make a great town centres and effective shopping strip? To get alignment of interests?”

Ross Grove, mayor of Holroyd City Council, said that in his patch they embraced development. It means more jobs in the area to stop people having to spend so much time travelling.

Sally Betts said consultation for a “one block LEP [local government plan] control decision had over 1000 submissions from the community”.

“We are really supportive of local government reforming but needs to be done in sensible practical manner and bring along the community.”

It’s a community with a huge range of interests and challenges, from affordable housing, to hospitals, beaches, regional shopping centres, heavy rail and “hopefully light rail”.

Ned Mannoun of Liverpool City Council wants to encourage more development and industry so that citizens can avoid the gruelling drive to get most places with jobs.
And yes, he’s firmly in support of a new airport at Badgery’s Creek in his patch.

Chris Johnson

Chris Johnson asked

who would look after the future residents and occupants of areas; they were not represented by seasoned anti development campaigners.

The development industry would represent them, he offered.

Keneally responded: “this goes to my point about having a real stake in the community. And thinking of the environment rather than short term NIMBYISM”

Was there a way to devolve power the other way, he said, down to the level and lessen the state role?

“It gets to the idea of legitimacy. Legitimacy springs from the consent of the governed. We need to be focused on how do we ensure the consent of the governed.”

And that’s not the administrative convenience of the state. Frankly that’s not where the consent comes.”

But you could feel the eyes in the room glaze over. On offer, soon, and sooner than people may be ready for, was a new planning regime that would deliver what the property industry wanted: faster, certain approvals.

Aaron Gadiel

Questions/comments from the floor

Aaron Gadiel, former chief executive of the Urban Task Force, now with Gadens Lawyers, said that it was in the interests of current residents to reject development because “scarcity boosts prices. It’s rational for them to resist”.

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, said, “why don’t we do what the City of Canada Bay has done…let’s get a representative group as they did at City of Canada Bay, of God forbid, randomly selected people, like a jury to work out how the council should solve problems?”